It became increasingly difficult to deny Indian military involvement alongside the Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh.
On returning to New Delhi [in mid-November 1971], the prime minister [Indira Gandhi] ordered a further escalation of military action along the borders with East Pakistan. From early October, the Indian army had been supporting attacks by the Mukti Bahini on Pakistani border posts. This initially took the form of artillery fire on Pakistani positions and the participation of small numbers of Indian troops in the offensives. In the second week of October, the army’s eastern command ordered its formations not only to defend the border but also to carry out offensive operations up to ten miles inside East Pakistan. The idea was to capture important salients in East Pakistan that would assist the eventual full-fledged military intervention. The captured territory was, however, held by the Mukti Bahini, with Indian troops retreating behind the borders.
The scale and intensity of these operations rose sharply in mid-November. The fiercest of these preliminary operations took place at Boyra in the Jessore area. The Indian offensive started on the night of 12 November and made considerable headway. On 19 November, Pakistan launched a massive counter-attack with armour and artillery supported by an air strike. Although the Indian forces eventually beat back the attack, downing three Pakistani aircraft in the process, it was clear by 21 November that conflict had escalated to a new stage. In consequence, Indian troops were ordered to stay on inside the captured territory all along the border.
The prime minister claimed in parliament on 24 November that “it has never been our intention to escalate the situation” and that “we have instructed our troops not to cross the border except in self-defence.” She dismissed as “propaganda” Pakistan’s claims that India was “engaged in an undeclared war”: “This is wholly untrue.” The speech was, in fact, part of India’s propaganda. Over two weeks back, Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times had filed a story quoting Indian officials as admitting that their troops had crossed into East Pakistan. Indira Gandhi had been in Paris when the piece was published and had been “deeply concerned at this leakage and desire[d] it to be thoroughly investigated.” She instructed Indian officials “not to indulge in making statements which are politically damaging to our cause.” As the tempo of operations rose, it became increasingly difficult to deny Indian military involvement alongside the Mukti Bahini. In the last week of November, the prime minister gave the go ahead for a full-scale attack on East Pakistan. The D-Day was set for 4 December 1971.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan army was watching the escalating conflict in the east with mounting disquiet. On the evening of 22 November, the chief of general staff briefed the president on the situation and urged him to order the attack on the western front. Yahya Khan told Gul Hassan Khan that “serious negotiations are in progress at this time and if we opened a front in the West, these would be jeopardised.” Yahya was hoping that the UN Security Council would take cognizance of the fighting and intervene in the crisis…
By this time [26 November], Yahya’s hopes for great power intervention had been deflated. The only major power that was inclined to raise the matter in the Security Council was the US. The Soviet Union made it clear that it would block any move to prematurely summon the Security Council. Britain, too, conveyed to the US that it wished to stand aloof…
On 29 November, Yahya took a tentative decision to open the western front and the final decision was made the next day. The D-day was originally chosen as 2 December, but it was postponed to 3 December 1971. The decision was a compound of strategic and psychological considerations. By attacking in the west, the Pakistan army hoped to relieve pressure in the east and to buy time for international action to damp down the conflict. The army’s sense of vulnerability was coupled with a curious overconfidence about its superiority vis-à-vis India. The idea of innate superiority of the Muslim soldier—the “one Muslim equal to ten Hindus” syndrome—had been bequeathed to Pakistan by the British Raj’s theory of martial races and it had been internalized by its military classes.
Added to this was the regime’s pejorative view of the Indian prime minister, whom Yahya and his colleagues referred to as “that woman”. On the eve of war, writes a Pakistani historian, “Private cars and public vehicles were plastered with ‘Crush India’ stickers. The radio was blaring martial music exhorting people to be ready for ‘jehad’, interspersed with vulgar parodies of Indian film songs about the person of Mrs. Gandhi.” When the pre-emptive strikes were launched on 3 December, the air chief told the military’s public relations officer not to bother about conjuring up a justification. “Success is the biggest justification”, he boasted. “My bird should be right over Agra by now, knocking the hell out of them. I am only waiting for the good news.”
The Pakistani attack came as good news to India, too. Following the clash of 21 November, Indian decision-makers had been expecting an attack on the western front by Pakistan. The prime minister’s secretary, P.N. Dhar, had argued that the junta could not afford to let go of East Pakistan without inflicting some damage on India. He also believed that they might hope to trigger intervention by the UN and so stave off a military defeat in the east. India, he advised, should wait and allow Yahya to pick up the blame for starting the war. He reminded D.P. Dhar of Napoleon’s advice: “never interrupt an enemy when it’s making a mistake.”
D.P. Dhar was on the prime minister’s aircraft travelling with her from Calcutta when the pilot informed them of the Pakistani air strikes. “The fool has done exactly what one had expected”, he tersely remarked. Mrs. Gandhi landed in New Delhi at around 10.45 pm and was received by the defence minister. She drove straight to the army headquarters where General Manekshaw briefed her on the actions taken on the western front and sought permission for launching the operations in the east. A little later Mrs. Gandhi met the rest of her cabinet. The decision was taken to declare hostilities with Pakistan and to recognize Bangladesh. In the wee hours of 4 December 1971, the war for Bangladesh formally began.
Excerpt from Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Harvard University Press & Permanent Black, 2013), pp. 231-34.